Copyright ©2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

Another person who recounted the events documented in the new film "Magic Trip," about the Merry Prankster bus trip across America led by Ken Kesey in 1964, is Tom Wolfe. He wrote about the trip, and Kesey's LSD experiments, in his book "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test."

Wolfe pioneered what came to be known as new journalism: reporting using the techniques of fiction, descriptive scene settings, dramatic tension and dialogue. When Terry interviewed Tom Wolfe in 1987, she asked him about his trademark look - the tailored white suit. He told Terry that his attire wasn't just about style, it also affected how he would go about his work as a journalist.

Mr. TOM WOLFE (Author, "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test"): I have discovered that for me - now, maybe it doesn't work for everybody - for me, it is much more effective to arrive at any situation as a man from Mars than to try to fit in.

When I first started out in journalism - in magazine work, particularly - I used to try to fit in. I remember doing a thing on stock car racing. I went down to North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, to do a story on a stock car racer named Junior Johnson. And I tried to fit in to the stock car scene.

I wore a green tweed suit and a blue button-down shirt and a black knit tie and some brown suede shoes and a round Borcelino hat. I figured that was really casual, it was the stock car races.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WOLFE: And after about five days, Junior Johnson, whom I was writing about, came up to me. He says, I don't mean to be rude or anything, he says, but people I've known all my life down here in Ingle Hollow - that was where he came from - he said, they keep asking me: Junior, who is that little green man following you around?

And it was then that it dawned on me that A, nobody for 50 miles in any direction was wearing a suit of any color; or a tie, for that matter; or a hat. And the less said about brown suede shoes, the better, I can assure you. So I wasn't - you know, I wasn't fitting in to start with.

I was also depriving myself of the ability to ask some very obvious questions if I thought I fit in. I was dying to know what an overhead cam was. People were always talking about overhead cams, but if you were pretending to fit in, you can't ask these obvious questions.

After that, I gave it up. I turned up - always in a suit and, you know, many times a white suit, and just be the village information-gatherer. And you'll be amazed, if you're willing to strike that role.

GROSS: When you were doing the research for your book "Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," which is about Ken Kesey and the psychedelic acid trips, were you dressed like that, too?

Mr. WOLFE: Oh, yes. And actually, to have tried to fit into that scene would have been fatal - perhaps literally, fatal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WOLFE: Kesey had this abiding distaste for pseudo-hippies or hipster -there was really no such term at that time, but we'll just call them pseudo-hipsters - you know, the journalist or the lawyer or teacher who on the weekends, puts on his jeans and smokes a little dope and plays some Coltrane records, and tries to be part of the scene.

And so he had a device called testing people's cool. And I remember once witnessing this. It was on one of these weekends. And he said: All right, let's everybody get nekkid(ph) - that was his word for naked - and get on our bikes and go up Route 1. This was in California.

And they did. They took off all their clothes, they got on their motorcycles, and they started riding up Route 1. Now, this separated the hippies from the weekend hipsters, if you will, very rapidly. But now, I didn't have to worry because I was in my three-piece suit with a big, blue corduroy necktie. And the idea that I was going to take any of this off for anybody was crazy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WOLFE: So, you know, I was safe.

GROSS: You probably just looked like another freak to a lot of freaks.

Mr. WOLFE: Well, after about two weeks, one of the Ken Kesey's group - the Pranksters - named Doris Delay, said to me: You know, you've got on the weirdest outfit around here. And it was the most unusual in that particular little corner of the woods.

BIANCULLI: Tom Wolfe, speaking to Terry Gross in 1987, talking about Ken Kesey and company. We'll hear from Ken Kesey himself in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.